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Dallas Morning News:
Bible class doesn't have to be holy war

William McKenzie
August 16, 2005

Whether they like it or not, the good citizens of Odessa stand on the newest battlefield in America's culture war. Odessa is the next Antietam because local school trustees voted in April to offer high school students an elective Bible course.

As everyone awaits the course curriculum, people on all sides are ready to march into battle again.

Some Odessa residents who support the course particularly favor a curriculum produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a North Carolina group with a strong conservative advisory board. This group has momentum, but its curriculum has others taken aback. Texans got a view of the coming skirmish last week.

The progressive Texas Freedom Network held a meeting at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, where Mark Chancey presented his critique of the curriculum. Dr. Chancey, a biblical studies professor at Southern Methodist University, says the material lacks scholarship and fairness.

Curriculum advocates responded with a news conference. Their basic message: Sue us if you think our material violates the Constitution.

Curious about this flap, I read the national council's curriculum, as well as Dr. Chancey's report.

As a layperson, I came away thinking much of it is fairly innocuous. Students would have to walk through plenty of dates. They would have to compare biblical styles of writing. And they would have to learn about such biblical figures as Moses, about which surveys show numerous students know zero. Nothing wrong there, as far as I could tell.

But then you hit the problems. As Dr. Chancey notes in his report, the curriculum implies archeology consistently supports the Bible's stories. It refers to two scholars who say as much and no one else.

Hiram Sasser, a lawyer representing the North Carolina group, said in a telephone interview that the organization isn't endorsing those two scholars' views. It's merely presenting them. OK, but why no opposing view? Good scholarship would include that.

Dr. Chancey also picks up on the curriculum's clear link between the Bible and America. You can see this connection right on the cover. An American flag and the Declaration of Independence are right below the title, "The Bible in History and Literature."

And there's the part of one section devoted to America's roots as a Christian nation. Never mind that this assertion is hotly disputed. Why does a discussion of it belong in a curriculum devoted to the Bible? It strikes me as another attempt to marry nationalism with Christianity, a dangerous concoction.

There are enough of these problems that I'd shop elsewhere if I were Odessa. And I'd start by reviewing the Bible Literacy Project's appealing alternative.

The New York-based group will release a Bible studies textbook this fall for use in elective courses. Forty scholars have vetted it, including evangelical, Catholic and Jewish academicians. Even though some professors also have signed off on the National Council curriculum some Odessa folks want, the list approving the Bible Literacy Project's work strikes me as broader.

For one thing, its supporters come from a wider range of theology schools.

What's more, the textbook follows the standards that 20 organizations approved in 1999 about how to teach the Bible in public schools. These just weren't any organizations; they range from the National Association of Evangelicals to the National Education Association and the American Jewish Congress.

If the Bible Literacy Project follows the sentiments of this powerhouse ecumenical bunch, its textbook should avoid many of the minefields that blow up discussions about religion in our politics, culture and, yes, schools.

That's the main reason to support the Bible Literacy Project's approach. We've all watched as people with competing agendas try to drive religion out of our national life or turn our public square into a holy one. Neither approach works, and it's time to move beyond them.

Earlier this year, I wrote that I was interested in finding people who help us do that. The people working on the Bible Literacy Project seem to meet the standard. They embrace the idea of high schoolers studying the Bible, but have tried to avoid turning the subject into a holy war. That sounds like a good formula.

William McKenzie is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is

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