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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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