The most recent issue of Time magazine features a cover story on the teaching of the Bible in American high schools. Not just reporting on it—the article was written by David van Biema, Time’s religion writer, who ends by recommending that American high schools should teach two-semester courses on the Holy Bible. The article claims that such a course is necessary for anyone who claims to be educated, and for anyone who would understand American history. However, van Biema fails to make a convincing argument. Here are some of the main points of the article:
Such a class would be constitutional. The article notes that the Supreme Court has decided that, although it is unconstitutional to require students to study the Bible as the received word of God, there is no problem with using it an object of study—in other words, as long as the Bible is being used for historical context or as literature. This is a nice idea in a theoretical sort of way, but in reality, people come down in one of two camps where the Bible is concerned. They either believe it is the inspired Word of God—or they don’t. If a teacher believes that the Bible is God’s word, there is absolutely no way he can teach it impartially. If he doesn’t believe it, his teaching is sure to arouse enormous amounts of controversy. Imagine the riot that ensues when the first teacher tells his eleventh-graders that the first few verses of Genesis are self-contradictory creation myths derivative of many previous such myths, and couldn’t possibly be true. Of course, most people who care enough to become teachers on the Bible are going to be true believers. Just because it would be constitutional to teach a Bible course doesn’t make it a good idea.
People think the Bible contains wisdom. Van Biema cites a poll that says two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life’s problems. This is actually a good reason to teach students the Bible—it would quickly dispel this notion. Again, though, those who would actually be teaching this class would almost certainly agree with the poll. Students would be taught that prayer with strong faith gives guaranteed results, or that the meek shall inherit the earth. Nice thoughts. Not true.
The Bible is the most influential book ever written. This, too, is a true statement, but it’s not a good reason to teach a high school course about the Bible. Mein Kampf and Das Kapital are also extremely influential books, but it’s not necessary to study every word of them to understand their influence. Reading Psalms is not necessary to understand how the Bible has been used as an excuse for colonialism, genocide, bigotry and homophobia. In fact, one could make the case that the Bible has been too influential, and teaching it in high school would only make it more so. The article makes a big deal out of the fact that there are innumerable literary and pop culture references to biblical stories—there is a full-page picture layout with a photo of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction and another of Superman looking all crucified. (Did you know “el”—as in Jor-el—means “God” in Hebrew? Wow!) Apparently we should read and study the Bible so we can enjoy The DaVinci Code. Really, if we’re going to teach the Bible in public schools because of the pop-culture references, shouldn’t we be more eager to teach students about Seinfeld or The Simpsons?
Van Beima lists several arguments against a high school Bible course, then dismisses them out of hand. Most of the people pushing for teaching the Bible in public schools are evangelical Christians who are by definition interested in making converts. It’s okay, Van Biema says, because it’s possible for a conservative Christian to teach the Bible impartially. Commercial Bible curriculums contain creationist anti-science drivel. Not much, Van Biema says.
The best argument against teaching the Bible in high schools is the people who are pushing the idea. These folks are thinly disguised intelligent design advocates, attempting to get their pseudoscience wedged into public schools. For example, the author of one of the primary textbooks used in such courses is Chuck Stetson, a graduate of the Wilberforce Forum founded by Chuck Colson (of Watergate fame). This Forum lists among its board of directions two of the usual ID suspects, Phillip Johnson and William Dembski, as well as Marvin Olasky, the prominent Christian reconstructionist and dominionist. These are not innocent Christians only interested in promoting the Bible as quaint literature. This is just another attempt to circumvent legal separation of church and state.
Van Biema endorses the teaching of the Bible, but rejects courses in Comparative Religion because kids are “already overloaded.” He ends his article with a vignette of a classroom in which high school students are taught by a conservative Christian teacher that the Ten Commandments (presumably including “I am the Lord thy God, you shall have no other gods before me”) are to be taken literally. This little play is supposed to relieve us of any concerns about Christianity being taught in the schools. “Sure, there will be bumps along the way,” Van Biema says.
Sure there will.