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The Problem with Public School Bible Classes

I have noted before that while Bible classes taught from an academic perspective have been ruled constitutional, I still think they are very bad ideas. Including the Bible as it applies in literature and history classes is appropriate, though it should be proportional to its importance to the field, and should be taught in a way that is neutral.

While problems may arise in such classes about the way in the which the Bible is taught, there is at least a good basis for setting the boundaries–the standards of the field in question.

Chris Heard at Higgaion tells of a community college teacher who has been fired because his teaching of Genesis 1-11 offended some of his students. You see, he taught what would be regarded as the academic mainstream view of these passages, and thus didn’t take them as narrative history, which his students would have preferred. Now this was in a western civilization course.

Imagine what would happen if the course was a High School Bible course, and someone taught critical views of these passages? That is what many, many academically trained teachers would do, and it would certainly be a violation of church and state separation to have teachers required to teach a particular sectarian view of the passages. Remember that it is not even the majority Christian view that these passages should be read as narrative history. (No, I will not be impressed by arguments that involve saying that Catholics aren’t Christians, and thus don’t count for the “majority.”) Such a class taught to high school students would result in an uproar in the Christian community. At the same time, they will try, as they have through the truly National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

The best way to teach young people the Bible is for the individual churches to provide their own instruction. I would suggest that instruction be broad and include an overview of how other people understand the texts. The young people can be introduced to more academic views in civilization and literature classes.

If the Bible is to be taught in public schools, the approach must be academic and critical, and must include all those views to the left of fundamentalism. Most of the parents aren’t even aware of such views, and will be shocked at what happens in those classes. Their hope is to get NCBCPS curriculum accepted and put it in the hands of underqualified teachers who will accept it as it is.

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  1. What’s puzzling to me is that not more than 20 years ago, I attended what was called weekday religious education, where school buses took us to a church so that we could have time to study the bible and learn about the christian religion. Those who didn’t want to go were provided acitivities back at the school. How is it that the issue has suddenly become so hyper politicized 20 years later that now the only way you can envision the bible being taught in school is an academic and critical approach rather than a religious approach?

    It wasn’t that long ago that churches were the public school system in America and nearly every one room school house in the country spent time with scripture every day. It seems so bizarre that we now want to totally disengage the public education system from anything even remotely religious, and that Christians are supporting this. I don’t get it.

  2. I need to be clear here, Larry. I’m arguing that something that is actually constitutional is still not a good idea. My argument goes beyond the law in this case.

    I would note that as far as I know release time is still legal. It was tried in our county school system, but didn’t work out mostly for logistical reasons and because churches were not quite as anxious to do the work as everybody thought.

    The problem in my view with Bible in a religious sense being taught is simply one of viewpoint. I, for example, would be regarded academically as a fairly well qualified instructor–MA level, but adequate. My approach to the Bible, were I teaching in church would be religious, but not satisfactory to the majority of Christians in my community because it would be regarded as too liberal. What version should be taught at taxpayer’s expense? To do the “majority of the community” view sounds to me like an establishment of religion.

    That’s why constitutional Bible classes are expected to be from a neutral point of view–something I think is next to impossible to accomplish.

    So I go back to teaching it in homes and churches, which I think is the best solution all around.

  3. I could just imagine the outrage of parents if their children were taught an academic understanding of the bible – things like J and P sources, opinions about how many of Paul’s letters he actually wrote, or the way Erasmus put his Greek bible together (and it’s relationship to the KJV). Worse yet if it it were put in a proper archaeological context. I’m sure that a lot of the people who don’t want their children hearing about evolution would be enraged if the hypothesis that the Israeli tribes built their civilisation in situ after the collapse of the Canaanite cities…

    I just can’t see how that would sit well with the type of people who are pushing to get the bible into public schools. I suspect that a lot of people would find a class on evolution to be a lot more compatible with their religious beliefs than would a class on the bible.

  4. I just can’t see how that would sit well with the type of people who are pushing to get the bible into public schools. I suspect that a lot of people would find a class on evolution to be a lot more compatible with their religious beliefs than would a class on the bible.

    You are absolutely right about this–I can tell you from experience. Most of these folks assume that a class in Bible will be something like their Sunday School class. They are completely isolated from critical Biblical scholarship.

  5. I suppose I agree with you to some extent regarding our current climate. It’s a little disappointing to think, however, that teaching has to be somehow neutral in content rather than neutral in weight. I wouldn’t mind my children learning different perspectives on the Christian religion like yourself being a liberal view and another pastor having a conservative view. That’s what I thought education was supposed to present. Instead we seem to be fixated on not venturing to one side or the other, in a sense, teaching children that the secular world truly is separate from the religious world and the two shouldn’t mix in public.

    It’s a long way from the types of society Jesus grew up in and I often wonder what he would do where he in a public school today. I don’t think it would have been his intention for us to separate the two so much. But I’m not a scholar and can’t vouch for my opinion with much other than my sentiments.

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